Xuma, Madie Hall
Madie Hall Xuma
Social activist, educator
Madie Hall Xuma was known as "Mother of the Nation" for her work to uplift women in South Africa from the 1940s through the 1960s, well before the moniker was bestowed on Albertina Sisulu, who made her mark during the more politically charged atmosphere of the anti-apartheid movement that followed. Upon arriving in South Africa to marry A.B. Xuma, the president of the African National Congress, Madie Hall Xuma set out to teach African women what she perceived to be the better, modern ways of life in America. Xuma dedicated herself to "giving service," according to Iris Berger in Journal of Southern African Studies; she inspired African women to develop skills, seek education, and aspire to live modern, self-reliant lives patterned after those of educated African Americans. She organized the African National Congress Women's League and served as the first ANCWL president from 1943 to 1949. She then turned to development of the Zenzele clubs, self-help social groups for women, throughout South Africa, which she helped become an affiliate of the international Young Christian Women's Association in the 1950s. Xuma will be remembered for promoting a "renaissance" among African women, as noted by an employee of the Department of Bantu Education, according to Berger in Journal of Southern African Studies.
Enjoyed Elite Upbringing
Madie Hall Xuma enjoyed a unique and privileged upbringing in America. Born Madie Beatrice Hall in 1894, she was the first daughter of H.H. Hall and Ginny Cowan Hall. The Halls raised their family of four children in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where H. H. Hall worked as the town's first black physician. Hall developed the town's first black hospital and actively organized the black medical community. His skill as a doctor overcame the town's racist history and earned him a good reputation among the townspeople of both races.
College-educated, Ginny Cowan Hall possessed a keen business sense. She bought property and built houses in several North Carolina towns. Her investments proved wise and brought the family additional income. She passed on her business acumen to her children, but also impressed upon them the value in helping others who were less fortunate. From the moment she earned her first paycheck, Xuma remembered her mother's encouragement to help others. Her mother asked her daughter to use a portion of her own money to buy a poor woman coal to heat her home during the coming winter while she herself bought the woman food and paid to make needed repairs to the woman's home. According to Emily Herring Wilson's Hope and Dignity, Xuma counted "helping people" as "one of the greatest things she taught me."
Xuma patterned her life after her parents' example. A bright and capable student, Xuma graduated from high school and attended her parents' alma mater: Shaw University in Raleigh. She soon earned acceptance to Howard University's medical school. Her father dissuaded Xuma from pursuing medicine as a career, however. He did not doubt his daughter's intelligence, but had heard from women with whom he had studied medicine in the 1890s that they encountered difficulties practicing medicine as professional women. The occupation required them to weather winter storms to make house calls, and their lone traveling sometimes put them in dangerous situations.
While Xuma's brother completed medical school and later joined his father's practice, Xuma turned her attention to education. She completed two years at Shaw then taught for a brief time at Booker T. Washington High School, in Miami, Florida, and for a year at Bethune Cookman College in Daytona Beach, before returning to Winston-Salem to look after her ailing parents. After her parents' deaths in the 1930s, she completed studies at Winston-Salem Teacher's College in 1937. Xuma continued in her scholarly pursuits and went on to earn a master's degree in education at Columbia University in New York.
Dedicated to Community Service
A singular woman, Xuma built a successful career. Her actions and attitudes were informed by a sentiment within the African-American community that the "talented tenth" of the miniscule percentage of blacks with a college education (one percent in 1940, according to We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women's History) should become community leaders in order to help the entire African-American community, as W.E.B. Du Bois argued. Xuma taught primary school, supervised adult education courses throughout North Carolina, organized a state federation of garden clubs, actively participated in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and even served as executive secretary of the YWCA in North Carolina and Virginia.
Through her activities Xuma developed a wide network of friendships and professional acquaintances with similarly accomplished black women. As part of this elite social group of African Americans, she came to the attention of Dr. Alfred B. Xuma. Dr. A.B. Xuma was a South African who had spent 13 years at American universities, culminating with a medical degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. After losing his first wife in the birth of his second child, Dr. Xuma hoped to arrange a second marriage with an African-American woman of suitable stature. He met Xuma in 1937 at Columbia University and courted her through letters, proposing marriage three times over the next three years. Xuma was quite reluctant to agree to marry. In a 1939 letter to Dr. Xuma she remarked that her desire to "be free mentally and otherwise" was "the greatest part" of her personality, as quoted in Journal of Southern African Studies. She added: "I have enjoyed comfort and independence—I have been happy and free all of my life—to cramp me now means death to me—but I do trust you and do feel that somehow I shall be happy there in So[uth] Africa." The couple married in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 18, 1940, the day after she arrived. They settled in Dr. Xuma's home in Sophiatown.
A prosperous physician and politically active man, Dr. Xuma won election in 1940 to the presidency of the African National Congress, a political group of elite blacks in South Africa working to win African rights within the white-controlled country. Over the next nine years, Dr. Xuma worked to develop a strong political organization and promoted racial uplift. Under his leadership, however, the ANC learned that it could no longer hope to build coalitions with whites, as apartheid officially separated the races by 1948. Nevertheless, the strong regional base that Dr. Xuma had developed included an activist youth league, with such energized members as Nelson Mandela, which ousted him from ANC leadership in 1949 in favor of more aggressive political techniques.
At a Glance …
Born Madie Beatrice Hall in 1894 in Winston-Salem, NC; died in 1982 in Winston-Salem, NC; married A. B. Xuma in 1940 (died in 1962). Education: Shaw University, Raleigh, NC; Winston-Salem Teachers College, teaching certificate, 1937; Columbia University, NY, MA, education. Religion: African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Career: NC, primary school teacher, 1930s; YWCA, NC and VA, executive secretary; NC, adult education class supervisor, 1930s; founder, NC, state federation of garden clubs,; playwright, 1943; African National Congress Women's League, South Africa, president, 1943–48; Zenzele (women's social) clubs, South Africa, leader/founder, 1940s; Zenzele/Young Women's Christian Association groups, general advisor, 1950sAfrican Young Women's Christian Association,; national council president, 1955.
Made Mark in South Africa
Not one to stand in the shadows, Xuma immediately set out to create her own life in Africa. She graciously infiltrated the social network of the country's black elites and traveled widely, espousing the benefits of racial pride and promoting education as a way to improve the standards of living among blacks, and especially African women. She even wrote, directed, and performed in a musical called American Negro Review: The Progress of a Race, which she based on a performance she had seen in Winston-Salem. The musical depicted African-American history from slavery to freedom, and received a warm reception at the ANC and held several repeat performances throughout 1943. That year Xuma also succeeded in organizing the ANC Women's League, having noted upon her arrival in South Africa that the ANC did not have opportunities for women. She was elected to the ANCWL presidency that same year. Under her leadership, the ANCWL focused on organizing African women and exposing them to the benefits of education and self-reliance. When her husband was ousted by more the activist youth league, so was Xuma.
Undaunted by losing her position in the ANCWL, Xuma continued her efforts to uplift African women, but out of the political spotlight. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the South African government became more and more restrictive. She learned in 1943 that the government would not permit her to open a play she had planned called The Green Pastures. The South African government also restricted her ability to travel and even threatened her home. She and her husband navigated the tumultuous period with calm. In 1955 she wrote to her husband "I believe the time for persecution of the Xumas has arrived. We'll take it gracefully, however and not panic. Somehow, I feel God will work out everything in a just manner," as quoted in Journal of Southern African Studies. She was keenly aware of the dangers of political activity perceived threatening to the white-run government in South Africa, and organized the Zenzele clubs as social groups that focused on domestic, social issues. But through these clubs, Xuma was able to dramatically influence African women's lives. A prevalent cultural attitude in African culture at the time placed women in a subservient position to men in society. By offering opportunities for African women to congregate, learn from each other and more worldly women, like herself, Xuma offered African women the ability to improve their lives. Zenzele clubs first focused on teaching basic domestic skills and social graces. Xuma traveled extensively in Europe and the United States, developing connections that would lead to the affiliation of the Zenzele clubs with the international YWCA in the 1950s. The affiliation changed the focus of the groups more toward social service and also greatly expanded membership. By 1955 she was elected to the national council as president. In a 1955 letter quoted in the Journal of Southern African Studies, Xuma wrote about how pleased she was about her work over the years: "We have made genuine and steady progress throughout the years and I also believe the YWCA is filling a need in the lives of the African people. It makes me very happy indeed."
Pleased with her work in South Africa, Xuma remained an American at heart. Xuma returned to Winston-Salem in 1963, a year after her husband died. Upon her departure Drum, a local paper, featured an article about her legacy in South Africa. Noting that the Zenzele club members referred to Xuma as "Mummy," the reporter wrote: "I realised that that was what she was—'Mummy' to the new type of woman we are seeing in our townships now; 'Mummy' to the smart social workers and new feminine intelligentsia, who will take over the leadership from her." The Xumas' home in Sophiatown is honored as a national historic landmark. Xuma died in Winston-Salem in 1982.
Gerhart, G.M., and Thomas Karis, eds., From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa: 1882–1964, Vol. 4, Hoover Institution, 1977.
Gish, Steven B., Alfred B. Xuma: African American, South African, New York University Press, 2000.
Hine, D. C., W. King, and L. Reed, eds., We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women's History, Carlson Publishing, 1995.
Wilson, Emily Herring, Hope and Dignity: Older Black Women of the South, Temple University Press, 1983.
African Studies Review, December 2004.
Drum, March 1963, pp. 39-40.
Ebony, August 1994.
Journal of Southern African Studies, September 2001, pp. 547-66.
Winston-Salem Journal, April 18, 1998.